The Souls of Black Folk: A Graphic Interpretation

W.E.B. Du Bois’ Prescient Masterpiece ‘The Souls of Black Folk: A Graphic Interpretation’

Rutgers University Press’ engaging, accomplished interpretation of ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ confirms it as W.E.B. DuBois’ most prescient and indelible work.

W. E. B. Du Bois Souls of Black Folk A Graphic Interpretation
W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Peart-Smith
Rutgers University Press
14 April 2023

First is to acknowledge that the author of this article about a landmark book by a Black American writer is not Black but a member (to all outward appearances) of the dominant racial and social group. Second is to recognize that, as Jonathan Scott Holloway writes in his Introduction to W. E. B. Du Bois Souls of Black Folk: A Graphic Interpretation, “it is clear that Du Bois had a white audience in mind from the start.” In the Introduction to another edition of The Souls of Black Folk, scholar Brent Hayes Edwards elaborates: “The Souls of Black Folk makes its readers […] attempt to unmake their innermost racial conditioning and reflexes, forcing them to see black life through black eyes.”

The Souls of Black Folk, which W.E.B. Du Bois originally published in 1903 (it includes previously published essays that he expanded and reworked), includes one of the most prescient sentences any American has ever written: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” The sentence is especially—and grimly—prescient because there’s no denying that the color line is also a critical problem of the 21st century.

“His words resound across decades,” Holloway writes in his Introduction by way of justifying the new Rutgers University Press graphic interpretation of Du Bois’ canonical book. (Holloway is the President of Rutgers and the author of multiple histories of Black America.) “Having The Souls of Black Folk reinterpreted as a graphic novel,” Holloway continues, “is an encouragement for us to speak across disciplines, to pursue new ways of thinking about the past, and to be reminded of the power of the visual to add texture and meaning to the written.”

Du Bois knew the power of the visual well before publishing The Souls of Black Folk. For the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris In 1900, he collaborated with a team of students at Atlanta University (where he was on faculty) to co-create a series of “hand-drawn graphs, charts, and maps arrayed in lively, vibrant colors punctuated by artistically intersecting lines,” Aldon Morris writes in “The American Negro at Paris”, his essay in 2018’s W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America.

Unusual for the time, these data visualizations are instantly recognizable as infographics today. One of them appears in the Rutgers edition of The Souls of Black Folk. Echoing Holloway’s words about the graphic novel’s ability to “speak across disciplines”, Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert, the editors of the Data Portraits, note in their Introduction that “the cross-fertilization of visual art and social science [in the infographics] marks an important transitional moment in the history of the disciplines.”

The data portraits not only mark a transitional moment but were ahead of their time, like Du Bois’ famous sentence about the problem of the 20th century. Silas Munro observes in his essay later in Data Portraits: “Made a decade before the rise of dominant European avant-garde movements, these works predate modular design elements often considered to have their origins in Russian constructivism, De Stijl, and Italian futurism. These modular elements are typically composed of abstract shapes built from circles, triangles, and rectangles in bright primary colors or black and white.” They also anticipate the Bauhaus art movement by 20 years and “foreshadow critical developments in the history of data visualization.”

Morris rightly calls the collection “a masterpiece of sociology, celebrating black humanity on a world stage.” Du Bois explained his work this way: “[I]t is an exhibit which […] is sociological in the larger sense of the term—that is, an attempt to give, in as systematic and compact a form as possible, the history and present condition of a large group of human beings.”

That also serves as a concise description of The Souls of Black of Folk, and it’s important to recognize the importance of Du Bois’ choice of the word “souls” in the title—not “lives” or “experience”, and certainly nothing like “data portraits”. Although W. E. B. Du Bois Souls of Black Folk: A Graphic Interpretation is unquestionably engaged with sociology and is at pains to give practical, evidence-backed accounts of Black Americans in the rural South (also the geographic focus of the infographics he conceived for the 1900 Paris Exposition), Du Bois warns: “It is easy to lose ourselves in details in endeavoring to grasp and comprehend the real condition of mass of human beings.”

Yet his book’s true concern—and its impassioned, often sermonic voice—is not sociological but spiritual. The Souls of Black of Folk is Du Bois’ cri de coeur. It is itself one of the “Sorrow Songs”, the indigenous Black American music that is the subject of the book’s final essay.

It’s noteworthy, then, that the most drily “sociological” essay in The Souls of Black Folk (where Du Bois’ warning about getting lost in details appears), “On the Quest of the Golden Fleece”, is omitted from the Rutgers graphic interpretation of The Souls of Black of Folk. Artist Paul Peart-Smith and co-editors Paul Buhle and Herb Boyd understand the book’s higher and deeper aims. They manage to include most of its text, here and there making judicious cuts and rearrangements to sift out some sociological details, take part of the wind out of Du Bois’ oratorical style, and accelerate the delivery of his message and his song.

Peart-Smith gives The Souls of Black of Folk a muted visual interpretation. The palette tends toward sepia and subaqueous blues, and there is the use of both chiaroscuro and a washiness that, at times, resembles watercolor. Notwithstanding Holloway’s vision of the “new ways of thinking about the past” made possible by a graphic interpretation of Du Bois’ text, the overall feel of Peart-Smith’s work is classical rather than modern, more 19th century than 21st. He takes the reader into Du Bois’ world rather than bringing him into ours.

It’s in the additions to the original text of The Souls of Black Folk that the Rutgers edition brings Du Bois closer to our own time. A Graphic Interpretation opens with an abridged rendering of NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins’ speech at the March on Washington on 28 August 1963—the day after Du Bois died in Africa, as Wilkins noted in conclusion, in which he also paid homage to Du Bois (who was a founding member of the NAACP): “It is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century, his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause,” Wilkins told the crowd before urging them: “If you want to read something that applies to 1963, go back and get a volume of The Souls of Black Folk.”

Co-editor Buhle, who has an extensive history as an editor of graphic books, is also the authorized biographer of C.L.R. James (1901-1989), the Trinidad-born Pan-African historian who carried Du Bois’ thought forward and gave it an explicitly Marxist, revolutionary voice. It’s likely because of Buhle’s connection to James that James also appears in this book, once early on and again at the very end. In a 1967 speech published in the Inner City Voice in 1968, he said of Du Bois’ prescient vision: “He saw that without an understanding of the Negro people it was impossible to get a clear and consistent and comprehensive view of America.”

That analysis, like Du Bois’ famous words about the color line, remains true today, and it’s perhaps why A Graphic Interpretation does not advance chronologically beyond 1968 but allows Du Bois to speak directly to our time with neither direct contemporary commentary nor, despite the title, interpretation. Peart-Smith’s art is respectful, restrained, and often shadowy—an appropriate contrast to the fiery intensity, vividness, and barely contained rage of Du Bois’ prose in The Souls of Black Folk. It is an unflinching and unsparing book—of its own author’s soul-suffering as well as of his audience. Anyone familiar with the text will likely be drawn to its most intimate chapter, “On the Passing of the First-Born”, which A Graphic Interpretation quietly relocates earlier in the book than it appears in the original as if to foreground its importance.

“On the Passing of the First-Born”, a devastating account of his son’s brief life and death in infancy from meningitis, is another instance of Du Bois’ prescience: an act of autobiography performed in a sociocultural study. The merging of these genres is common in our age of memoir, but it was rare in 1903, and Du Bois’ chapter is rarer still: it’s one of the most heartrending passages in all American literature. To the agony of loss is added the pain of Du Bois’ awareness and insistence that the child is “not dead, not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free”—that a soul born Black in America was doomed to “grow choked and deformed within the Veil” (Du Bois’ metaphor for what kept his race “shut out from the world”). He uses his lost son to communicate what he can’t quite bring himself to say: it’s better to be dead in America than Black.

One of the extraordinary things about “On the Passing of the First-Born” is how it expresses in transposed, yet intensely personal and powerfully mortal terms, Du Bois’ concept of the “double-consciousness” in the Black soul. His notion originated in an early African-American folk belief that children born with a caul—a placental membrane covering the newborn’s face at birth (from which Du Bois also derived his metaphor of the Veil)—were gifted with “second sight”: prophetic or psychic vision.

Yet for the Black American, this gift was also a curse of having “no true self-consciousness […] a sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels this two-ness: an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” Du Bois’ son’s death confirms one soul’s tragic loss in this war.

The purpose of the war—”the end of this striving”, as Du Bois puts it—is “to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use [our] best powers and latent genius.” Du Bois’ long striving—he lived to be 95—was a lifelong escape from death and isolation, not to mention persecution from his own government. Du Bois was only 35 when he published The Souls of Black Folk, and a long career in the kingdom of culture lay ahead of him. Yet the book remains the highest expression of his power and genius, and Rutgers’ engaging, accomplished new interpretation, 120 years after its publication, confirms it as his most indelible.